Winners of the AAAS Mentor Awards Offer Ideas for Supporting Science Students from Diverse Backgrounds

Making science relevant and building connections between students are important ways to encourage more students from diverse backgrounds to study science, according to the winners of the AAAS Mentor Awards.

As a graduate student in computer science at the University of Cincinnati, Juan Gilbert was the only African-American student in his department. Similarly, as an undergraduate zoology major, Barbara Horwitz was always one of the few women in the class during her science and math courses.

Determined to prevent other students from experiencing the feelings of isolation they faced, both Gilbert and Horwitz have worked to mentor science students from underrepresented groups and they will both be recognized at the AAAS Annual Meeting for their achievements as mentors.

Images courtesy of Juan Gilbert (above) and Barbara Horwitz (below)

Horwitz, distinguished professor of neurobiology, physiology, and behavior at the University of California, Davis, will be honored with the AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award. Gilbert, the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Chair and associate chair of research in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, will receive the AAAS Mentor Award.

The first step to encouraging students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is making it relevant to them, Gilbert said. "Students from underrepresented groups tend to aspire to give back or help others," he said. "This is why you see so many underrepresented students in medicine, law and education. It's clear how those disciplines connect with people. It's clear how those disciplines help others."

It's less apparent to students that science improves people's lives. "Students often think STEM researchers work with artifacts and phenomenon," Gilbert said. "So when we show them that we work with people through human-centered computing and how we are helping others, they get it. This excites them and then they become engaged."

During her four decades at the University of California, Davis, Horwitz has found that there is a difference between students' interest in STEM topics and interest in research. While the majority of undergraduate students she has worked with were interested in biology, they frequently felt inclined towards pursuing fields that are less research-intensive, such as clinical medicine, nursing, or pharmacy studies.

"I think a critical factor in getting undergraduates to continue on for advanced degrees in STEM is a meaningful research experience that includes positive feedback from the research mentor regarding the student's efforts, as well as guidance in experimental design and data interpretation," Horwitz said. "Students need to feel that their effort was worth their time, that it made a contribution."

"I think that a key factor for success for any student is engagement in a climate that is supportive and inclusive yet demanding."

Barbara Horwitz

In a letter recommending her for the AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award, Kim E. Barrett, dean of graduate studies and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, praised Horwitz's commitment to promoting undergraduate research opportunities. While many researchers prefer to work with post-doctoral fellows rather than undergraduate or even graduate students, Horwitz consistently invites large numbers of undergraduates to participate in research because of her belief in the importance of the undergraduate research experience.

"She makes a compelling case that this high-impact educational practice not only helps undergraduates to explore career options, but more importantly equips them with skills that can be transferred to any subsequent pathway as an informed citizen," Barrett wrote. "In this regard, her track record has presaged a current intense national emphasis on ways to best reform our undergraduate research mission."

Horwitz has been involved with three programs at the University of California, Davis that facilitate undergraduate research experiences, including opportunities for students with disabilities and those from underrepresented or socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. In addition to setting up meaningful research opportunities, the programs help students connect with like-minded peers.

Being one of the few women in her undergraduate science classes encouraged Horwitz to help students from underrepresented groups. "Although I was fortunate enough to find a home in the laboratory of a faculty member who involved me in his research, I was sensitized to the fact that underrepresented students could easily get lost at a large university and that providing a supportive environment for them would likely facilitate their success," she said.

Gilbert's experiences as a graduate student inspired him to help students from underrepresented groups connect with each other. "I was isolated, so when I completed my Ph.D., I was determined to prevent any other students from being isolated," he said. As a professor in the computer science and software engineering department at Auburn University, Gilbert led workshops for African-American Researchers in Computing Sciences (AARCS), bringing together scientists from across the country, representing a wide range of career levels.

"Prior to AARCS, I had never seen so many African-American computer scientists in one place," wrote Kyla McMullen, assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the University of Florida. "These workshops were a tremendous asset to my development."

"We need everyone to make our nation better. We are stronger when our STEM researchers are diverse."

Juan Gilbert

Gilbert also moderates an email list for African American Ph.D.'s in Computer Science (AAPHDCS) which includes about 300 faculty members and students in the field. "Before the AAPHDCS list, many of us were isolated and disconnected from each other at our respective institutions," McMullen wrote. "Juan has brought us together as a community and this has thoroughly benefitted us all."

"I think that a key factor for success for any student is engagement in a climate that is supportive and inclusive yet demanding," Horwitz said. "Students from historically underrepresented groups need to feel that their endeavors and their views are valued and that they can be successful."

Acknowledging the importance of diversity will encourage more students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in science. "We need everyone to make our nation better," Gilbert said. "We are stronger when our STEM researchers are diverse."